Championship Xmas Post 2018

Welcome to the annual renewal of the Post of Christmas Past.

This week – as is usually the case in this post – you’ll be learning who will probably win promotion and who will probably be relegated at the end of the season.

However, this year there’s something different about Christmas in the Championship…but naturally you’ll have to read the entire post to find out what it is.

Despite thinking that the Sheffield United had a decent chance of beating WBA last weekend, the actual result didn’t disprove my theory that Chris Wilder’s team aren’t automatic promotion candidates even if they are one of the better teams in the division.

On to the sprouts and turkey. Over the past half decade, a team is more likely to be promoted if they’re in the top three on Boxing Day evening. Only once in the last half decade has a team been promoted after being outside the top six on 26/12 and that was Norwich in 2014/15, but last season Bristol City became the fourth club in the last five seasons to be in the top six at close of play on Boxing Day not to win promotion.

Here’s where the plot thickens and where I’m also likely to risk drawing the wrath of Leeds fans once again – but I’d recommend reading the rest of these next couple of paragraphs. I wouldn’t be too surprised if either Derby or Leeds are in the top six at the end of Boxing Day and end up blowing promotion – both clubs have been in exactly that position at least three times over the last five years and haven’t managed to cross the line. Derby in particular seem to have issues: they were third in 2014 and top a year later but blew it; that’s why it’s actually really difficult to gauge Frank Lampard’s ability as a manager: the Rams could have a cardboard cut out of Brian Clough in charge and still be ‘there or thereabouts’ every season. If we go back a few years, the same was true of Cardiff, who are now two points outside the Premier League relegation zone and preparing to face Manchester United tomorrow.

If – as looks likely – Leeds are in the top two, that’ll be their highest position after the Boxing Day programme since they were promoted back to the Championship in 2010. This season they’re arguably the most balanced team in the division and finally look like the real deal, but because I’m a neutral it would be wrong of me not to have a nagging doubt about their promotion chances. We’ll see but I’ll be pleased if I’m proven wrong.

At the wrong end of the table, the teams in the bottom five after the Boxing Day games are far more likely to be relegated – in fact, over the last five seasons all of the relegated teams were in the bottom five on the evening of December 26th. The bottom two are usually – but not always – doomed and I think it’s probably time to stick a fork in Ipswich and Bolton. The Tractor Boys have to beat both Sheffield United and QPR in their next two games to stand any chance of escaping the bottom three and Bolton have been in this predicament in three of the last four seasons.

As for who might accompany them, it also shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that both Millwall and Rotherham are struggling either but if Sheffield Wednesday‘s defence gets much worse they’ll have a fight for survival on their hands – and as I was writing this, they sacked Jos Luhukay. I’d also keep an eye on Brentford, the wheels seem to have come off since Dean Smith left for Aston Villa, with new boss Thomas Frank losing eight of his first ten games. Reading – who have a tough looking three game schedule coming up – aren’t out of the woods either.

I normally take the mickey out of the scheduling of live games over the festive period, but this is where the big difference is this season. There is ONE Championship game over Christmas and that’s Sheffield United v Derby (Boxing Day 3pm); Sky Sports seem to have finally realised that showing multiple games over the holidays is a waste of time. The new contract with the EFL has not gone down well at all with the clubs (especially the so-called ‘bigger’ ones or as I like to call them, the moaners who think they should be in the Premier League) and I suspect the midweek red button service may not have gone down as well as Sky Sports may have thought it might have done.

Saturday December 22nd

An interesting one as three of the top six are away at teams in the bottom six: Middlesbrough‘s trip to Reading features two sides that have combined for one win in their last twelve outings. I can’t see Sheffield United having any problems with Ipswich or Rotherham troubling WBA. As I wrote that, I suddenly had the feeling that at least one of those games will provide the weekly upset that the Championship is well known for.

Sunday December 23rd

Aston Villa v Leeds (Sky Sports Football/Main Event, 1:30pm kick off)

Wednesday December 26th

I’ve already mentioned Derby v Sheffield United, but the games at Norwich, Bolton and Millwall all look like they’re worth following – especially as Rotherham are the guests at Bolton and Reading make the journey to South London. It could be one of those key afternoons at the bottom of the table.

Saturday December 29th

Norwich host Derby and Ipswich travel to Middlesbrough.

Right, that’s me done for another year. Back for the FA Cup Third Round, have a Happy Christmas and thanks for reading.

GOTW: Sheffield United v Leeds

Televised game of the week alert!

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first here’s a quick overview.

The current top seven are still on course for a trip to the playoffs at the very least – it’s going to be tight but I also still think Leeds, Middlesbrough and WBA are the best bets for promotion. We’ve got a few weeks until the annual Christmas Prediction Fest so let’s see what happens before then.

I’ve not bothered covering the midweek games for a while but the encounter at Villa Park on Wednesday was somewhat eventful:

At the bottom it looks increasingly as if it’s a case of select two from five to accompany Ipswich into League One at the end of the season. Over the last five seasons the only team that was in last place at the end of November and wasn’t relegated was Bolton last season; Ipswich are slightly better than Rotherham and Blackpool were when those clubs spent the entire season adrift at the bottom of the table, but that’s about the only positive spin you can put on this situation.

As for the other contenders for the drop, over the last half decade the bottom six at the end of November has provided us with at least two of the teams that were relegated and between 2014 and 2016 all three of the teams that were demoted at the end of the campaign were in nineteenth place or worse.

Sheffield United v Leeds (today, 12:30 kick off, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

The Blades are currently on an eight game unbeaten streak at Bramall Lane but that’s going to be tested this month as they host Derby, Leeds and WBA. Leeds’ recent away form is patchy: although they’ve only lost twice in their last six road trips, they’ve only won at Hull and Wigan.

Hang on, that looks a bit like a sentence that you’d find in a rugby league blog.

Head to head: unbelievably, Leeds haven’t won at Bramall Lane since they clinched the old Football League Championship in April 1992! United have won six of the last eight meetings in all competitions since then. Additionally, seven of the thirteen Yorkshire derbies this season have ended in draws.

A couple of extra categories for this one as it’s such a big game – in the top six mini league, the away side has won four of the 13 games between the current top six this season, but all four of those matches involved either Nottingham Forest or Norwich. As I mentioned above, this is the start of a nasty looking run of home games for Sheffield United: Leeds have already won at Norwich but were well beaten at WBA a few weeks ago.

This is the eighth game of the week this season but only two of those matches have finished with a home win. It’s less than six weeks since I last chose a game of the week and to illustrate how much things can change in the Championship, at that point Sheffield Wednesday were sixth. The Owls then lost five of their next six games and are now only three points outside of the bottom six.

Verdict: Leeds won’t win – their previous record at Sheffield United is poor and with three key defenders (Ayling, Berardi and Jansson) all missing, I can see the wait for an elusive win at Bramall Lane continuing. That’s not to say The Blades will win though…

The other televised games this weekend are Middlesbrough v Villa (5:30) and WBA v Brentford (Monday 8pm) – the former looks as if it should be a good one, but I can’t see anything but a home win in the latter.

Finally this week the draw for the Third Round of the FA Cup Draw will be shown on BBC1 on Monday evening at 7:30pm. Tempus fugit as the Romans used to say.

Crystal Ball Scratching

With just under seven weeks to go until Christmas, the next couple of months are very important for clubs chasing promotion or trying to avoid relegation.

As there are no particularly outstanding games in the Championship this weekend I thought I’d gaze into my crystal ball this week to make some quick predictions – especially as we’ve got another bl**dy international break coming up next weekend.

  • It looks as if I’m going to have to eat my words about Leeds – they’re much better than I thought they’d be and there’s a chance that by Boxing Day they may have secured pole position – their key game before the festivities is a trip to Bramall Lane on December 1st. Looking further ahead, February may be the key month for Leeds but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
  • Leeds’ biggest rivals for automatic promotion are Middlesbrough and WBA, but although Marcelo Bielsa’s side are well balanced, Tony Pulis and Darren Moore’s men have glaring issues: Middlesbrough don’t score enough goals, whilst WBA’s defence is non-existent. Only four teams have conceded more goals than the Baggies and two of them are in the bottom three.
  • Along with Leeds, Birmingham and Nottingham Forest are unrecognisable from last season – the latter pair have become tough to beat, but may need to wait another season for a realistic chance of promotion. Forest’s best case scenario is the playoffs.
  • Norwich aren’t as good as the current table suggests: they’ve done well against the bottom half of the table, but have already lost at home to Leeds and WBA. They have a reasonable looking schedule this month; December will be far harder.
  • Sheffield Wednesday are worse than the current table suggests: current owners of the worst defensive record in the division they’ve played 12 games against the teams currently above them and lost seven of those contests, winning just twice. They face Sheffield United on Friday (Sky Sports Football/Main Event 7:45pm this evening) and Derby later in the month.
  • As it stands, Paul Lambert has a well nigh impossible task of keeping Ipswich from dropping into the third tier for the first time since the late 1950s, but I’d expect Rotherham and Bolton to be drawn into the relegation battle over the next few weeks: both teams are struggling to score goals – at the moment there are three other clubs that have scored less than a goal per game, including QPR who are currently eleventh and are second in the eight game form table behind Norwich.
  • Reading and Preston will continue to make progress up the table and although I don’t think Reading will trouble the top half, Preston are more than capable of doing that even though they look as if they’ve left it too late for a playoff challenge.

Televised games this week – Sky Sports Football/Main Event unless stated:

I’ve already mentioned the Sheffield derby, which is always entertaining and shouldn’t be missed if you’ve got the opportunity to watch. The other game on Sky Sports this weekend is between WBA and Leeds at The Hawthorns (tomorrow, 5:30pm) – for some of us, that’ll bring back memories of a very controversial game from the 1970/71 season…

Leeds Reverse Means The Worst For Hurst

The last seven days have proved that the Championship is anything but predictable.

Now we’re at the end of what our German friends call an ‘English Week’, the form book has been turned on its’ head and another manager has lost his job.

Middlesbrough got off to a good start last Friday evening in last week’s game of the week…

However, I don’t think anyone would have predicted that Rotherham would have travelled to the Riverside on Tuesday evening and earned a point after  a goalless draw. Sheffield Wednesday also lost at QPR and have gone from the top six to the bottom half of the table in a week; after some impressive recent performances, WBA were spanked 4-1 at home by Derby on Wednesday evening.

There were originally three matches that I’d considered for Game of the Week, but I ruled out Middlesbrough v Derby for being too obvious and neither Millwall v Ipswich nor Preston v Rotherham looked like headline grabbers – even though they’re both important games at the bottom  of the table.

As it’s the end of  October I thought I’d take a quick look at the teams who have either noticeably improved or deteriorated from last season.

The most improved teams so far this season are Birmingham, Leeds and Nottingham Forest.  I thought Garry Monk should have been in the conversation for the September manager of the month award and he should be the obvious choice for the October award – the Blues are undefeated in ten games and have won for of their last six games and so far this season they’ve only lost once in seven games against the teams that are currently above them in the table.

The clubs that have taken at least one step back since last season are Aston Villa, Millwall, Preston, Ipswich and Hull. We all know about Dean Smith replacing Steve Bruce at Villa, but until yesterday afternoon my money would have been on Hull’s Nigel Adkins being the next manager to receive his marching orders.

That’s when Ipswich Town decided that – having dropped to bottom of the table after losing at Leeds – the Paul Hurst era was over after just fifteen games. The Tractor Boys haven’t won at home since April, have lost seven of their last ten away games and wouldn’t have escaped the bottom three this weekend even if they’d won. It’s a similar situation with Adkins: the Tigers have gone seven games without a win and conceded late goals in their last two games that effectively cost them four points.

I think it’s fair to say that there are some signs that Millwall and Preston may have just taken a while to get going rather than showing any damaging long term signs of regression, but now’s the time for Neil Harris and Alex Neil to make their moves.

This weekend’s televised games are as follows – shown on either on Sky Sports Football and/or Main Event unless stated: QPR v Aston Villa (this evening, 7:45pm), Middlesbrough v Derby (tomorrow, 12:30pm) and Leeds v Nottingham Forest (tomorrow, 5:30pm). The Saturday games looks most tempting and it won’t come as a huge surprise that QPR have been chosen again, whilst Leeds/Forest is always televised – although this season it’s actually relevant for a change.

I’ll back in a fortnight as I’m off to France for half term.

GOTW: Sheffield Wednesday v Middlesbrough

Welcome to the second – and penultimate – post of October 2018.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote anything, but although we’re already just over  a quarter of the way through the season something statistically significant may have happened: only the current top six are on course to make the playoffs. I wouldn’t expect to see something like that until much nearer the end of the season. 

As it stands, any of the top four could be in pole position at the end of this round of games and with another midweek programme next week the overall situation still looks pretty fluid. A stat that’s worth considering: only Leeds and Sheffield United have played fewer than three games against their immediate rivals for promotion. On the other hand Middlesbrough have already played four games against the other five team in the top six.

Anyway, without any further ado, here’s the game of the week – a televised Yorkshire derby!

Sheffield Wednesday v Middlesbrough

(this evening, 7:45pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

After having predicted another season of slow decline from Wednesday, I’m now going to both eat my words based on their recent performances. They’ve suffered only one home defeat in their last ten (although they’ve drawn the last three at Hillsborough – blowing leads against Leeds and WBA) and only two reverses in their last ten at all venues. Before I get too carried away, I’d still be a bit wary of their defence though: they’ve conceded in nine of their last ten matches.

Middlesbrough’s recent home defeat by Nottingham Forest was their first loss at the Riverside since last season’s playoffs, but before anyone writes Tony Pulis’ side off they should remember that they’ve only lost twice away from home since the end of January. Stopping Boro from scoring is imperative but as you just read, that’s not exactly Sheffield Wednesday’s strength right now.

HTH: Wednesday have won three of the last five games at Hillsborough, but haven’t recorded a victory since two goals in two minutes gave them a 2-0 will in February 2015.

Verdict: there’s only been one away win in the eight games between the current top six so far this season, but half of those games ended all square. I think a draw is highly likely. Incidentally, my GOTW record so far: two home wins, two draws, two away wins.

Other games to follow this weekend are both at the bottom, where Paul Clement and Nigel Atkins will both be attempting to avoid being the next manager without a job:

Hull v Preston: the Tigers have lost four of their last five, but after four consecutive defeats Preston have picked up four points from the last six and could be poised to make one of those impressive runs similar to the one last season that took Millwall from flirting with the drop to dreaming of the Premier League. Talking of which…

Reading v Millwall: this will be Reading’s 20th league game since the end of March and they’ve won precisely three of them: two of those victories were against Preston. After six defeats in seven games, Millwall are unbeaten this month.

The other televised games are between Blackburn and Leeds (noon Saturday, Sky Sports Football red button) and Derby v Sheffield United (5:30pm Saturday, Sky Sports Football/Main Event). Both of those look as if they might be worth watching, although the game from Ewood Park will be overshadowed by the clash between Jose Mourinho’s former employers that’s also being shown on Sky at more or less the same time.

Finally this week, Brentford appointed Thomas Frank as manager following the departure of Dean Smith to former Premier League outfit Aston Villa. The Dane had previously managed at Brondby in Denmark, but has no previous managerial experience in the UK.  And we all know what happened to the last Brentford manager who had a similar record .

I’ll be back be next weekend.